Brazil awaits for Balotelli and Gli Azzurri

By Anthony Lopopolo, writing from Torino

Think of the madness that is Mario Balotelli – the hair, the cars, the racism. But when he takes a penalty kick, he’s ice-cold. Everything stops. For that moment, no matter its weight, he is serene. So this time, against the Czech Republic’s Petr Cech, Balotelli stepped up to the spot and scored. It was the winning goal, the second of a comeback, but no different than the rest he has taken. It was the goal that won Italy a ticket to Brazil two games ahead of time. It was perfect in an imperfect game.

This is what the kids came to see. They came to see the Azzurri, of course, and they came to see Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, both honoured on Tuesday evening for the record-breaking amount of appearances they have made for the national team. Even on their night, the journalists asked them questions about Balotelli. Another game was his.

All the way at the top of Juventus Stadium, just below the rafters, children no older than 12 or 13 jumped and caroled for the AC Milan striker before the game. In the hymn of the famous French nursery rhyme, Alouette, they sang: “Se saltelli, segna Balotelli! Se saltelli, segna Balotelli!” Meaning, “If you jump, Balotelli scores.” These kids wore the colours of Torino, the burgundy track suits, and the shades of Juventus, white and black. It didn’t mean a thing. No matter the colour of their skin or jersey, Balotelli speaks to the youth of Italy unlike any other athlete.

But this crowd was testy. Over and over, Balotelli missed chances to score. He hit the crossbar, shot straight at goalkeeper, came up with nothing. “It’s never happened to me before,” he told RAI Italia after the match. “I was unlucky, but I kept trying until the end.” Still, the stadium groaned and whistled. He looked down at the ground as he slowly took the walk back up the field, the latest shot fired toward the sky. And then we started to clap. The walk evolved into a run. He put his head up and turned around, trotting backwards to see the goalkeeper kick the ball.

Balotelli had eight shots and five on target. He was offside, and he drew a yellow card. For him, the game was almost a disaster. But he drew nine fouls, and one of them happened inside the box, where he scored the 25th consecutive penalty kick in his professional career. The whole story changed in a moment. Where he had been the worst player on the field, he was suddenly the best.

Partly we do it to Balotelli: such is our obsession with the player, that even at just 23, we focus all the attention on him. He never fades from the spotlight because we’re the ones who put it there and keep it there. But he almost always delivers on the stage, and he loves to shine – especially in front of the fans. We want him to solve the problems with racism. We want him to be something he isn’t. He is, by his own admission, a simple person with simple goals, even if we believe he leads a very complex life.

Maybe Balotelli should be enjoyed for who he is, not what he’s supposed to be. The raw power, the back-heel passes and the wicked celebrations – maybe these are things to simply behold, the acts of a footballer most comfortable in a stadium with a ball to his feet.

There are many reasons why Italy qualified for the World Cup so early: Buffon and Alberto Gilardino saved three points on Friday against Bulgaria; Giorgio Chiellini, the defender, scored the goal that set off Italy’s comeback on Tuesday; and the Azzurri, as of today, remain unbeaten. But Balotelli is the man the people want to see, and there he was, again, stealing the show. No encore necessary. It will happen again.

This piece was written by Anthony Lopopolo, a Senior Writer at AFR. You can follow him on Twitter at @sportscaddy. Comments below please.

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